Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Director: J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Star Trek into Darkness)
Starring: Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, + Carrie Fisher
with: Mark Hamill, Ian McDiarmid, Domhnall Gleeson, + Richard E. Grant
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 56%
Star Wars is one of the most beloved pieces of intellectual property in the history of movies, and now it seems best described in a sadly Dickensian way: The Tale of Two Sequels.
Writer-Director J.J. Abrams returns to the Star Wars universe after having previously been responsible for the ultra-successful reboot of the franchise with 2015’s The Force Awakens. The triumph of that film, occasionally overshadowed by complaints of repetition and familiarity, was the introduction of a new line of interesting characters that would represent the Star Wars of the future generation. Star Wars finally had life again.
The subsequent fallout from that success is a chasm as deep as a canyon between various sects of the Star Wars and film communities. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this divide than the very different styles of the two sequels that followed The Force Awakens. With The Last Jedi, albeit a flawed movie with a messy second act, writer-director Rian Johnson brought a new vision to the universe, one of allowing Star Wars to be movies of consequence by weaving in social and geo-political themes. The problem was the vexing response from fans that further divided the Star Wars fandom and prompted Disney to entirely re-evaluate their priorities and bring Abrams back to direct the next sequel, The Rise of Skywalker.
The Rise of Skywalker is the exact opposite of The Last Jedi, seemingly embodying the calcified, zombie-like nature of its resurgent villain. It is big, boring, dumb, convoluted, and often incomprehensible. But, worst of all, it’s safe. It’s a film which takes very little risks, is barely memorable, and peppers in a healthy potpourri of nostalgic throwbacks in lieu of new direction and patently sharp retreads of steps made in The Last Jedi. With this film, Disney is telling us that moving forward is a mistake, and the only way to go is parallel to the work which has already been completed. The very vision, the passion with which George Lucas first embarked with on this journey, has been replaced by corporate filmmaking designed to appease our very worst instinct in film: that the familiar is somehow more worthy.
That being said, I appreciate the Catch-22 Abrams and co. faced when working on this film. By making something that only appeased the fanbase, critics would likely be turned off by the familiarity and give the movie poor reviews, thus dampening its exponential earning potential long-term into 2020. However, if they opted to again push the boundary and make something critics loved but further divided the fans, Disney would run the risk of permanently losing much of the built-in audience that made them purchase Lucasfilm for $4B earlier this decade.
My issue with this movie is that it unapologetically embraced Star Wars’s past without doing more, foregoing internal consistency in the series and new ideas for a sloppy, plot-driven mess that falls apart the second a viewer begins picking at some of the plot threads. The critical choice to bring back Emperor Palpatine as a central villain despite clearly watching him die on-screen in Return of the Jedi is a lazy way to attempt to cover up for the inability of this production team to invent something new. We’re supposed to just accept, with no explanation, that Palpatine survived his iconic fall, made his way to a planet in the unknown regions, began building an army and a mass of star destroyers out of thin air, cloned/created Snoke to lead the unaffiliated first order, and planned for his orphaned grand-daughter to eventually come face to face with him in the hope that she would join the lineage of the Sith.
Keep in mind, this is a movie in which two of my favorite Star Wars characters in the canon (Rey and Kylo Ren) team up to defeat the nine-movie saga’s greatest villain, and I did not really care about the resolution. That is a colossal failure.
Rey, played by Daisy Ridley with newcomer spunk, was such a warm and welcome protagonist to guide us through these movies. She represented a much-welcomed feminization of the story in a way that never was about her sexuality or her appearance. She was a street-smart scavenger who managed to survive on an anarchic planet with nothing but her wits and her well-developed fighting ability. She could be the scrappy underdog that would remind the audience of Luke Skywalker before her, but also provide inspiration to girls around the world that the primary hero of the world’s (arguably) largest movie series could be a woman from nowhere.
It’s here that the Grandpa Palpatine reveal hurts the most.
Instead of telling kids everywhere that anyone can use the force and anyone could become a Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker perpetuates the near oligarchical system which has plagued our politics in recent years. You can only be a Jedi if you are part of the club. You must be a Skywalker or a Palpatine, no other explanation matters.
The broad world Rian Johnson campaigned for in ending his film with the small boy (with the broom who could use the force) is directly contradicted by this idea that the scavenger from nowhere, one who longs for adventure as she peers through her X-wing helmet and watches ships leave the place of her marooning, could not possibly be from an inconsequential position. She instead has to be the long-lost heir of the most powerful force user in the Saga.
Even more hurtful is, seemingly, the direct acceptance of all of the negative fans who complained that Rey was too powerful. A series in which a boy of ten named Anakin Skywalker could race in the most high-stakes grand prix in the galaxy and later save the day by blowing up a major control ship was widely accepted as canon, for he would eventually don the Dark Vader mask. Yet, a scavenger named Rey who survived on her own for her whole life by climbing around crashed star destroyers with no protection, risked her life every day for mere sustenance, and was able to survive with trained combat skills could not possibly be as powerful as she is. I’ll let you make up your mind what the difference between the two is. Making her a Palpatine contextualizes her power when it was never necessary. Rey is allowed to be powerful . . . she’s the protagonist of the series.
The Palpatine choice also denigrates the relationship at the core of these films, with the Kylo Ren/Rey force-skype-chat dynamic quickly becoming the heartbeat of how these films would unfold. Rey’s balance between the light and dark sides would be informed by Kylo Ren’s constant presence in her life, while Kylo’s eventual redemption would be aided by Rey’s compassion for him. It was a nice idea to have the two central characters essentially share a consciousness, where they regard each other as equal parts partner and enemy. It also helps that these two actors are probably the two best in this iteration of the series and have impeccable chemistry together. Adam Driver has become one of the best living actors, frankly.
It’s here that we arrive at the big swing The Rise of Skywalker tries to take, and the results are mixed. By revealing Rey’s lineage and focusing in on her occasionally untamable anger from prior films, the film really wants the movie’s main stakes to be centered around whether Rey will turn to the Dark Side.
In 1977 when the first Star Wars film came out, the archetypical story structure was not as well-known, and so a simplistic good versus evil conflict over those films was successful. However, the best property lives more in a state of grey these days, and so, if the idea is to make Rey flirt with the Dark Side, it has to be done in such a way that the audience can actually believe she’d turn.
But, despite getting really angry and having some missteps in this movie for sure, it never felt as if Rey would ever make the choice to change allegiances, and the reason for that is quite simple. The Dark Side never gets any kind of discussion as to what makes it so appealing. This movie would be aided by an honest dive into why some our heroes go down that path and how they perceive they are doing the right thing. What are the First Order’s policies? How does Kylo Ren look to use his position of authority other than just engage in military conflicts? What does the dark side of the force give its users that the light side does not? With all this discussion of Sith thrones and force dyads, this movie would be way more interesting if Rey’s decision actually felt like a real decision. But that movie would probably be a movie where Chewbacca stays dead after Rey blows him up, not a ridiculous retraction when he ends up being alive two scenes later.
Instead, the arc of these two characters is completely predictable. Kylo Ren eventually changes sides after a rather touching Harrison Ford cameo as Han Solo in a scene which mirrors the lines in The Force Awakens. I enjoyed their eventual team-up, and I even enjoyed the kissing scene, though it did kind of feel like fan fiction when he just immediately dies afterward. A few more seconds of dialogue there, maybe where they try to talk about future plans or something, would make his death seem a bit more forlorn and not just a cop-out to ensure he, as a huge war criminal, doesn’t have to try and be buddy-buddy with the surviving members of the Resistance. Also, I’m just not convinced as to why he died. It seems like if you give a little bit of life force to heal someone’s wound, yours regenerates after some rest. So, in theory, Kylo Ren could have given her just enough life force to be alive and then she could heal up and he wouldn’t have to give up so much that he dies. My car battery doesn’t die if I jump yours. It just all seems illogical.
The rest of the movie outside these two characters is pretty bland. Some of the action sets are fun and some of the new planets seem like they would be a nice place to spend an episode of “The Mandalorian” on. Our side characters have even less importance in this film, however, where Poe’s arc about leadership and responsibility mostly stutters and Finn again just ends up a passenger who chases after Rey. It’s implied that he is force sensitive, which is fine, but they don’t do very much with it.
The end spaceship battle did not make a ton of sense, where the destroyers didn’t have shields and could not take off without the guiding beacon or whatever, that whole thing seemed, again, convoluted. But, you can’t have a Star Wars film without a big shoot-out space battle at the end while the other characters use lightsabers.
The score is a nice reprise for John Williams to show off his chops, and some of the visuals look great. The various lightsaber battles will get the kids into it, and I did like the set design on the sith planet. There is a world in which some of those scenes could be a little scary, which would be fun for Star Wars fans.
But, we always knew that the sets and visuals would look good. This is a Star Wars movie with a massive budget. It all feels like an overstuffed Christmas present, where a giant decorative bag with nice tissue paper reveals a small $10 gift-card buried deep in its depths. This is a bland, stationary film filled with a first act comprised of rushed video-game quests. The character stuff with Rey and Kylo Ren is much more interesting, even if a bit underdeveloped and saved by good acting, and the friendships with the characters have their moments, but usually are just played off for small bits of comedy.
This film comes off as Disney and J.J. Abrams begging the fans for acceptance. I would posit that the fans don’t matter, and if they make a good movie, it will come to be revered over the course of time. I don’t go into movies hoping that I get every little plot point, retcon, and easter egg that I asked for. That would take the fun out of the movie experience. Movies are supposed to be challenging by subverting expectations and getting the audience to question their ideas and worldviews by presenting a different one on-screen. Instead, when this series tried to do that, the toxic fandom screamed about how “it wasn’t Star Wars anymore” and were so angry that they’ve made multiple female actors of this series erase their social media by the amount of hate messages they get. I don’t think that’s what pop culture should be about.
And so, in sum, The Rise of Skywalker isn’t plotted well, it’s paced poorly, the dialogue is pretty sloppy, and it sacrifices character development and dialogue for McGuffin quests and reversals of choice. The heart of this series is much like Palpatine’s, kept alive at a predictable rhythm by corporate machinery and sith acolytes who would rather see their fan-fiction played out on screen than something challenging or new. There is no nuance between the Dark Side and the Light, there is no explanation as to how Palpatine is alive, there are no courageous twists or choices done with characters. And, if there are any, they are immediately reversed a few scenes later.
Showing us a lightsaber and giving us a John Williams score just is not good enough anymore. With the amount of good content living on the myriad of streaming platforms as well as the weekly releases of new material in theaters, the colors and shell of a Star Wars film don’t automatically make it more interesting or deserving than the other available options. Who knew something as massive and breathtaking as Star Wars could have a normalcy problem